The Eagle and the Iron Cross

Excerpt

          They listened. The camp was a clock. Ticking, it told the time of war. When it stopped the war would end. Over the clock, the silence was like glass. Whistles shattered it.
          “Raus! Raus! Move!” Corporals bellowed, running them out of the barracks. They snapped mathematically into formation.
          “Kompanie, stillgestanden!” To ears not honed to hear it, this command, a suggestion almost, delivered in a Bavarian dialect, might have been inaudible. Master Sergeant Skubovius never shouted. His eyes were his gunnery. They counted, measured, inspected, noted, filed, went blank. As ordered, the Oberfeldwebel in delegated charge of First Stockade had it drawn up at 18.45 hours to the second. As usual, it was the Amerikaner who were late. 
          The men waited at iron attention. Sweat coursed their faces.  Temperatures in southern Arizona, even in May, had soared to 40° C., and for the first time since the Führer’s birthday, on the twentieth of April, the POWs had been ordered into parade dress. Some uniforms were the overseas issue, patched and cleaned out of sentiment, for such garment, together with a name, a number, a faded photograph, might be the only luggage of a man’s life. Some uniforms were new, however, hand-dyed and tailor-made within the camp, exact in fit and detail. In the formation were 256 enlisted men. A few, shot out of Mediterranean skies, vaunted the collar wings and light blue of the Luftwaffe. A score, perhaps, were sailors of the Kriegsmarine, in ribboned hats and bell-bottomed trousers of dark blue, survivors of Unterseeboot, raider, and depot  ship crews fished from wide and furious latitudes. Almost half, captured in Sicily, wore the familiar field gray, black belts, and jackboots of the Wehrmacht. Most dramatic of the costumes were the khaki of a full half of the complement. On the left sleeve of the tunic was a band of black, silver-bordered, bearing a silver palm tree and a swastika; on the billed caps, set at a defiant angle, were a silver eagle and a round cockade—black outer circle, white inner, dot of red as red as blood.  The very insignia called a splendid roll of battles: Sidi Rezegh, Tobruk, Halfaya, Bir Hacheim, Mersa Matruh, El Alamein, the Faid, and the Kasserine Pass. They were the desert foxes. They were Erwin Rommel’s own. Panzer men, grenadiers, infantry, engineers, and flak, they had been surrendered in Tunisia to Eisenhower and Montgomery. Leaving 40,000 of their dead behind, they were freighted away from palm trees and mountains and cruel suns and immensity, over an ocean and a continent, to a destination that only war, the idiot geographer, could decree: to palm trees and mountains and cruel suns and another immensity. They were brought to Arizona. The Afrika Korps.
          The Afrika Korps had been, still was, even in its remnant, proud. That it had fought brilliantly, outnumbered and –vehicled, and honorably, by classic rules, had been acknowledged by its enemies.  It despised the Wehrmacht, with whom it was penned. Two-thirds of the inmates of No. 80 Camp were Afrika Korps, for they were the first prisoners to reach the United States in large numbers. But in this stockade the bag was badly mixed. Here there were more Wehrmacht, which meant more SS planted like mines, and possibly the SD, the Sicherheitsdienst, the thought police. That was one reason why the First Stockade was called the Fourth Reich. Another was Master Sergeant Skubovius.
          He came to attention. An American officer and an enlisted man in suntans entered the stockade gate and proceeded, out of step, toward him. Neither was armed. Approaching the Oberfeldwebel, the officer returned his salute. The enlisted man hammered a notice onto a bulletin board and marched back. From his pocket the officer drew a handwritten duplicate of the notice, faced the formation, and cleared his throat once, twice. He was a young second lieutenant too conscious of his gold bars, of his language deficiency, and of the fact that his voice, a slender Massachusetts reed, must serve as history’s trumpet. He cleared his throat again.  He began to read in execrable German:
          “The following telegram from the War Department: ‘The organized resistance of the German armed forces has ceased. The National Socialist Government of Germany no longer exists. The Allied occupation authorities exercise all power in Germany. Members of the German armed forces are released from any obligation entered into with a government which no longer exists. As prisoners of war you continue to be subject to American laws and regulations and must obey the orders of persons placed over you.’”
          Finished, he stood uncertainly. He stepped back one pace as though the announcement might provoke a last suicidal Nazi assault upon his person. To his astonishment, there was no reaction whatever. The men had been expecting it for days. What they had hoped for, any scrap of information about their shipment home, had been withheld.
          The lieutenant turned. “Sergeant, you may dismiss.”  Motioning to his enlisted aide, forgetting to return the master sergeant’s salute, he quick-marched across the gravel and out the gate.
          Oberfeldwebel Skubovius did not dismiss. He strolled to the mess hall, tore down the announcement, brought it back, crumpled it into a ball, placed it against his buttocks, made an obscene gesture, and dropped it.
          “Lies,” he said. “Lies and propaganda fit only for the latrine.”  Otto Skubovius was massive. The middle thirties were his prime.  Square of face, his head was squared by tight ears and a bristle of short, brick-red hair. Each hand and wrist was a white sausage. On a finger glinted a gold ring. “Now,” he said, “now the only announcement which counts you will get from me. You heard, I am still in command of this stockade. Regulations which have been in effect will be.” Among the Nuremberger’s privileges was the selection of his own uniform. His GI suntan shirt and trousers had been knife-pleated by the laundry, but a black Wehrmacht belt strapped him, and on his shoulders were sewn the silver flaps of his rank. “The speaking of English. Verboten. The reading of amerikanisch books and newspapers. Verboten. To fraternize with guards. Verboten. In short, doing or saying or thinking anything disloyal to the concept of One People, One Reich, One Führer. Understand?”
          The muzzles of his eyes traversed. They did not understand.  They were listening, but not to him. The war was over, they had just been told, yet they were not going home. The war was over, yet the clock continued to tick. The war was over, yet the time of war was not. They could not know it never was. 
          Mistaking their bewilderment for pigheadedness, Oberfeldwebel Skubovius hesitated. Should he challenge them with a Heil Hitler? No, the response would prove nothing. Even the Holy Ghost, administered to several of them in recent weeks, had not been enough. He must teach them all, including the Wehrmacht, a harsher lesson. Jawohl, he would, and this very night.
          “Kompanie, abtreten!” In a gentle, almostly kindly tone he let the formation go. It broke ranks and bunched up entering the barracks.
          A westering sun set fire to and quenched with shadow a series of low, connecting peaks several kilometers from the camp. The Americans had no name for these mountains. To the Germans, their outline resembled that of a human figure, supine. They called them the Sleeping Indian.  

2

          The Post Exchange was thronged. Now they were dressed in green fatigues on which the letters POW were stenciled in white.  They drank beer and played a jukebox and speculated when they would be sent home. In weeks, a month at most, in any event as soon as shipping was available, some argued, for if the Amerikaner had been humane enough in every other aspect, they would prove to be in this; while others, the morose or cynical, said no, the USA was still at war with Japan, it would be a long time, at least until any work they might do was done, for if the efficient Amerikaner had made slaves of men before, they could again. Some were silent.  They spent their work coupons for cigarettes and toilet articles, wristwatches and radios, all the sundries available in the PX of an Army installation. From Sears, Roebuck catalogues they chose and ordered such things as stockings, girdles, and brassieres. These would be routed to women in German through postal facilities of Sweden and Switzerland.
          A soccer team practiced at one end of the Fussball field. At the other, two teams in American pads and helmets scrimmaged violently.
          Films were being shown in several of the mess halls, usually comedies or love stories or Westerns. Occasionally a film depicting combat between Americans and Japanese was run, but never one based even remotely upon operations in the European Theater.
          Prisoners whose English was equal to it read in the camp library. The most popular books, here as in the Vaterland, were the adventure novels of Zane Grey, particularly those set in Arizona. 
          Through the open hospital windows a handful of patients observed what they could. They were victims of recurrent malaria, contracted in Libya. They required minimal care, so that the nurses had little to do except to tend young Lieutenant Heinz Buchting, once of Leipzig. He could not see through the window, could neither move nor speak. He had no sense function. All was void. For a month he had lain in an extended coma, reduced to perpetual infancy, but less than infancy for he was fed not by bottle or breast but by tube.
          In one mess hall the Afrika Korps Band of thirty pieces practiced a stirring march, “From the Halls of Montezuma.”
          Hot night hushed the camp. Cooling slowly, degree by degree, the desert seemed to crack. A few prisoners walked the perimeter of No. 80. To the west the lights of Phoenix, a city named for the legendary bird which was reborn from its own ashes, winked on. To the north and to the east beyond the Sleeping Indian, mysterious in darkness and in myth, was vast America. To the south was Mexico.
          Searchlights flared. Fixed in position atop guard towers at intervals and corners so that their beams fused, they made a wall of light around the camp’s rectangle. On both sides of the wall were chain link fences twelve feet high, from the tops of which three barbed-wire strands were angled inward. Between the fences, on changing schedule, a jeep patrolled. In the wooden towers guards checked .30 caliber machine guns, sighted along the wall, their field of fire, then tuned in radios to the rebroadcast of a baseball game between the Boston Braves and the Brooklyn Dodgers played back East that afternoon. Only one prisoner had ever attempted escape from with the camp, a Luftwaffe officer named Buchting who had concealed himself under a QM truck. Unfortunately for him, considering the condition in which he was returned, he had succeeded. No one had ever tried it over the fences or under, by tunneling, nor would anyone now, after the day’s development.  Escape would be pointless.
          For the Germans, the longest, most oppressive hour was that between 21.00 and 22.00. It was then that their manhood opened like a wound which would not heal, and they were defenseless.  Distance, an abstraction during the day, the soul reckoned. And it was then, locked into themselves, awaiting the pardon of sleep, that all the munitions of pride and fortitude and patience could not support their loneliness. They did what they could to make it endurable. In the heat and stifle of the barracks they stripped to GI shorts. Each barracks grew fetid with Kommiss, the mixture of body odors, clothing, hair oil, and boot polish peculiar to the German services everywhere. They played poker. They wrote the one letter home allotted them per month. Some made Nazi flags or carved models of U-boats or Tiger Panzers or battleships, the Scharnhorst or Graf Spee, for wholesale to the guards who retailed them in turn to civilians. For furniture each man had under his cot a footlocker and beside it a nightstand made by carpenters among them. On the latter, framed, was whatever photograph of wife or children or sweetheart or mother or father he might possess, or lacking that, a pose of Ginger Rogers or Rita Hayworth. Most of the men listened on radios to a station in Phoenix which carried every night at this time a program of Western music. The songs, sung through the nose to a twanging guitar, were laments of longing and lost love and homelessness and misspent youth and burial in strange, uncaring soil: “The Dying Cowboy,” “A wild Rattling Cowboy,” “The Trail to Mexico,” “The Wandering Cowboy,” “Poor Lonesome Cowboy,” “The Cowboy’s Dream.”
          Lights out was 22.00. Along the barracks in each stockade walked an accordionist. Softly he played, first Brahms’s “Lullaby,” then “Lili Marlene,” then the Zapfenstrich, a refrain similar to the American “retreat.” To his music the prisoners settled down. No. 80 Camp slept.
          At midnight the American sergeant on duty in each stockade left the office to make a cursory bed check of prisoners. As the noncom in First Stockade passed through the snores and dark of one barrack, a prisoner stirred, lay rigid as he left, timing. After a few minutes he sat up, pushed his feet into unlaced shoes, and moved cautiously outside.
          He walked over gravel to the latrine. Here the lights, naked bulbs, remained on all night. The latrines were divided into two sections, one for showers, the other lined along one wall with washbowls and mirrors and along the opposite wall with toilet cubicles.  Blinking, he checked the first to be certain he was alone.
          He entered the third cubicle and closed the door. Stepping up onto the toilet seat he balanced, raised both arms, leaned forward, leaped. He caught hold of the four-by-six inch beam which ran the length of the latrine over the cubicles, sought with his fingers, grasped a narrow packet tied with string, and dropped to the floor.  Seating himself on the stool, he untied the packet.
          His name was Matthe Karl Teege and he was twenty-one. He was a Reichs-German, having come from Duisburg on the Rhine. He had been surrendered as a crew driver with the 501st Tigers, attached to the Tenth Panzer Division in Tunisia. He was called “Richter,” or Judge. 
          He first unfolded and studied a clipping from a Phoenix newspaper which ranked the various baseball teams in the major leagues by games won and lost during the current season. The Chicago Cubs led the National League, the Detroit Tigers the American. Next he unfolded several pages cut from civics textbooks.  One contained a chart of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Federal Government, together with the number of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. On its reverse was a chronological list of Presidents and the dates of their tenure in office. This, too, he studied. The last set of pages reprinted in their entirety the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and Bill of Rights and other Amendments of the United States, and it was these to which he devoted most effort. He seemed to be committing as much as possible of them to memory or to reasonable recall. Over certain lines he lingered, frowning, trying them in the mind, judging them, his lips moving--“…unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness….But when a long train of abuses and usurpations… evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is there duty, to throw off such a government….Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
          Matthe Teege glanced at his wristwatch. Refolding the clipping and pages into a packet and tying them, secreting them again atop the beam, he left the cubicle and the latrine and returned to his barrack. Inside, he removed his shoes, tiptoed to a cot not his own and awakened another prisoner.
          This one’s name was Albert Anton Pomtow. He was twenty-three, and his home was Taplacken, a village in East Prussia. He was always on the move. “Rast ich, so rost’ ich,” he would say. “When I rest, I rust.” Shoes on, across the open stockade yard he clomped, a walking windmill, a contraption. To his long, thin frame were jointed long, thin arms and legs and to them, big hands and feet. Albert Pomtow’s nickname was “Hampelmann.” The toy most coveted by German children in the nineteen-thirties was a clownish thin figure with a grinning face which fitted over a hand. Pull a string behind it and Hampelmann’s eyes popped and his arms and legs jerked ridiculously up and down. 
          So tall was Albert that he did not have to leap for the beam in the latrine. Craning an arm, he got the packet and enthroned himself on the stool for his half hour, yawning, scratching, humming “Home On the Range,” and ever practical, while broadening is knowledge of American athletic and political institutions also relieved his bladder.
            When Hamplemann left the latrine on schedule he went not to his own barrack but to another, in which he roused Willi Franz Loffelbein. He was but eighteen years old. An ordinary seaman, believed to be mentally retarded by his mates and made their messboy, he had been captured only five months ago in the Caribbean when the U-305 was depth-charged to the surface by American aircraft using sonar buoys. He came from near Neukloster, in Mecklenburg.
          Willi slunk across the yard, as fearful this night as on the very first sortie. He entered the latrine and looked into the showers and into every cubicle before closing the door of the third behind him.  Short and stocky, the strength of his muscular legs alone propelled him from the toilet seat to the beam. He dropped with a grunt, seated himself, and set to work. To the dark-haired, dark-complexioned youth it was a half hour of torture. He did not know English as well as Matthe and Albert, and although he assured them he was making rapid progress, he was not. Words in the Declaration of Independence such as “usurpations” and “despotism” he could not even pronounce, much less comprehend. The baseball--whatever dumm game that might be--standings baffled him. Ja, he would the fly in their soup be, but help it he could not. 
          His second trip across the stockade yard was more dreadful than the first. Pebbles clicked under his shoes. But worse than that, for black-hooded, stocking-footed figures passed soundlessly not far away, a formation which, had he not turned his head, he might have witnessed entering one of the barracks. He did not, but hurried even faster into his own barrack, his own bed. It was fortunate for him that he had neither knowledge nor premonition of the purpose of the four men.
          They found what they were looking for, an infantry private named Dreschler. He had lately been reckless enough to be sarcastic about Korporal Schicklgruber and his Thousand-Year-Reich. He had, moreover, expressed publicly a wish to remain in the USA rather than return to a Germany conquered and in ruins.
          One man clapped hands over his mouth before he could rouse. Simultaneously another sat on his legs while each of the other two sat on his chest and extended his arms. With razor blades they slashed lengthwise the radial artery in each wrist. 
          Dreshchler struggled but could not move. He screamed but could not be heard. The pump that was his astonished heart labored, forcing blood from the severed veins in thick gouts which splashed the floor. For eight or nine minutes they held him firmly. 
          He went limp, then lapsed into unconsciousness, and it was safe to release him and to slip from the barracks. As the pump failed for lack of fuel, his blood would well more slowly, but he would not revive. He would die within an hour.
          To his friends in the Wehrmacht, and the the Afrika Korps, to the entire First Stockade in fact, Dreschler’s exsanguinated corpse would be an object lesson in the morning. To the American military, who would take their clue from the razor blade dropped beside his cot, it would prove that to the die-hard National Socialist soldier, self-destruction was preferable to surrender.
          No. 80 Camp slept. Germans dream as do all men. They dreamed of home, of beloved faces, of how a hand ws formed, of how a tear had tasted. The barracks were load with groans of protest at the horrors they had lived, the horrors they had done, on land or sea or in the air. Conscience and duty argued in the throat. In scraps of words the self begged absolution of the self. And there was no peace.
          To certain prisoners, however, sleep was sweet. These were the very young, the boys in men’s faces who were dressed in uniforms at seventeen or eighteen and sent on murderous errands by their elders. Now, one or two or three years later, they were boys still. In slumber they fled. In darkness they slipped from the charnel house of maturity, changed gladly from costume of gray and blue and khaki into getups of fur and feathers and buckskin, and ran away in dreams to the very place where they now reposed--the American Wilden Westen. For the book of their boyhood was not Mein Kampf.  The author of their fantasies was not Hitler or Goebbels or von Schirach. It was Karl May. What James Fenimore Cooper had been to early generations of American boys, and Mark Twain and Horatio Alger and Zane Grey to later, Karl May had been to theirs. Among the best-selling novels of all time, his seventy volumes took millions of wide-eyed German youngsters into the Near East and into Africa, but most frequently into that romantic region where tales were taller than the Rockies. There they met Winnetou, mighty chief of the Apaches, a red gentleman and natural philosopher who dressed in elk leather and perused Longfellow’s Hiawatha in leisure moments. They met his partner in adventure, Old Shatterhand, who could fell a villain like an ox with a single blow; a combination of Natty Bumpo, Siegfried, Buffalo Bill, and Christ; a man of the Wild West who carried a magic rifle, Bear-Killer, with which he could knock out a grizzly’s eye at fifteen hundred meters. With this fearless pair they rode the mountains and the praries to survive a crisis every fifty pages. They never lost. They conquered always. 
          Hanging over the end of his cot, Albert Pomtow’s bare toes wiggled with excitement. A tribe of howling savages surrounded him.  He feared not, for he was not alone. Behind him, indomitable yet reliant on his leadership, stood a gallant band: Old Shatterhand, Buck Jones, Fred Thompson, Tim McCoy, and Hoot Gibson. “Wie geht’s, Herr Silberner Sechs-Schiesser?” they asked. “OK,” he responded coolly, drawing his magic revolver. To them he was not a Hampelmann. To all the West he was The Silver Six-Shooter.
          Matthe Teege lay on his back, arms solemnly at his sides. By the flickering firelight Winnetou, his bearing kingly, strode forward to address the braves. “Heil, Teege, wearer of the Iron Cross! He will drink Winnetou’s blood and Winnetou will drink his. Then Teege will be blood of our blood and flesh of our flesh. Do the warriors of the Apache agree?” In guttural shouts they gave their answer, “Howgh, howgh, howgh!”
          Boys immemorial, they dreamed the Arizona night away. In those dwindling hours they were prisoners not of war but of imagination, captives not of guns and wire and light but of their youth. They dreamed of heroes and villains, of forts and buffalo and sheriffs and cavalry. They dreamed of cowboys and the Indianer

 3

           One of three prisoner-of-war camps in Arizona, No. 80 had been established in November of 1943. Outside its main gate were several administration buildings and the barracks of two companies of military police. The camp consisted of twelve identical fenced stockades, boxes within the larger box. Capacity was two thousand enlisted men and officers.
          Six mornings of the week a line of Army trucks formed at the main gate, and from each stockade the labor details, carrying box lunches, marched through the gate and filled the trucks. Enlisted men were required by the Geneva Convention to work. NCOs were given a choice and ranks up to master sergeant did. Officers were not and of course did not. The trucks rolled.
          Phoenix in 1945 was a small semitropical city supported principally by irrigation agriculture and the payrolls of two nearby Air Corps bases and a naval air station. It derived income, too, from light industry and several resort hotels for winter tourists. Across the Phoenix area the trucks fanned out, moving their loads to the points at which they were needed. There was much for the Germans to do.  They weeded cotton. They picked cotton. They cleaned irrigation ditches. They planted date palms. They tended the lawns and gardens of luxury hotels and painted the buildings during the off-season. They picked and packed oranges, lemons, grapefruit, melons, lettuce, and other produce. And these things they did more cheaply than migrant American or imported labor. Here  the Geneva Convention, which stipulated that they be paid prevailing wages,   was easily circumvented. To an Army busy with more important matters, “prevailing wages” were as low as the employer might declare them to be; there was a war on, he would justify to himself, and these were Germans, Nazis, the enemy. They were fortunate to be alive and in one piece.
          They were, and they knew it. They were well-fed and healthy, they could work and earn, they were far better off in fact than their Allied counterparts in German camps. But for one phenomenon the camp authorities could not account. It occurred irregularly, perhaps twice a month.  It was a kind of contagious insomnia. Unable to sleep, a prisoner would leave his barracks in the middle of the night and appear at the fence. Soon others would join him, until the entire stockade or several stockades would muster along the fences. In the towers, guards rubbed their eyes open and trained the light machine guns. Men so long cooped up were capable of any insanity, they assumed, and two MP companies could be swiftly overwhelmed.  What were the crazy krauts about to do? Goose-step through the wire in their underwear on a mass march for a port of embarkation?
          They sang. They sang the songs of their services, the “Panzer Lied” of the Afrika Korps, and for the Kriegsmarine, “Wir Fahren Gegen Engeland.” They sang a lilting round: “A penny and a dollar, Both of them were mine; The penny went to water, The dollar went to wine.” Over the desert the chorus ebbed and tided like a restless wind, now wistful and subdued by space and rock, now a roar unruly.  Listening, the guards shivered. There was something in that sound they recognized but could not understand, a counterpoint of rage.
          For a soldier surrendered is a soldier betrayed. To make a soldier of a young man he must be assured that his cause is just, his flag is sacred, and that his gallantry will get him honor--but most vital, that he will triumph. This is the certitude which sustains him.  But should he be handed over to his foe by general or government, he is robbed of his ultimate illusion. His youth itself is traduced. His very soul is violated. Second only to making a young man into a soldier, surrendering him is the most despicable of acts, and every nation in history has been guilty of it.
          They could always sing. And they could always escape. That was another irony which attended their sojourn in Arizona. Most prisoners left the camp daily on work detail. In the fields, the two MPs guarded each truckload of twenty with something less than vigilance. Let the krauts take off like big-assed birds if they wished, the guards joked. Let them stagger around in this God-forgot desert minus food or water or maps or much English with rattlesnakes   for buddies until they went loco and sang “Deutschland über Alles” to the sun. None of the Nazis had ever pulled off a real escape and none would.
          If was true, if one defined a real escape as an effort which culminated in reaching neutral territory or country of origin. But from the earliest impoundment of prisoners in No. 80, many Germans had escaped in another, in an amusing, sense.
          They were bored by the monotony of their routine. A little liberty was as refreshing as a cold beer in the PX after a hot day.  And Germans were noted as tourists: it was their duty to see as much of America as they could while they were here. When a guard turned his back or took a nap or traded with civilians, they simply walked away from work.
          One stole an Army jeep, drove to the Grand Canyon, and was recaptured standing on the rim taking photographs.
          Another rode a freight train to Los Angeles and was picked up on Vine Street in Hollywood. He had been determined to meet Ginger Rogers in person.
          A group of sixteen, members of the same U-boat crew, had trussed up their guards, inflated inner tubes borrowed from the camp motor pool, and set sail down an irrigation canal for the Gulf of California. To their chagrin, the canal ran dry ten miles from Phoenix.
          Many turned themselves in when supplies gave out after several days of mountain-climbing, prospecting for gold, and classifying the desert flora. Some were taken wandering around in circles, hopelessly lost. They had been looking, they explained, for Indians. Trying to decipher timetables in bus terminals and railroad stations, others were apprehended by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was the official task of the FBI to track them down, since outside the camp the Army had neither search facilities nor jurisdiction.
          And then there were escape attempts which were not amusing.

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